In the first millennium around 500 AD, the Tai, a linguistic group originating from the Yunan province of southern China started migrating into Northern Laos, displacing the earlier inhabitants and forming the majority of today’s inhabitants. These people settled along the
Mekong River, and began to form communities called muang or mandalas, spreading down as far south as Champasak. Further advances were blocked by the Khmers, who had started expanding their influence northward from Cambodia. In the 5th century, the first Khmer Kingdom, Funan, had extended far enough North to demand tributes from Southern Laos. In 630 AD, the Kingdom of Zhenla, another Khmer empire, gained enough dominance to control southern Laos. The Khmer empire maintained their influence until the 1253 when the Mongols invaded Laos from the north. Following the withdrawal of the Mongol’s, the Siamese dynasty of Sukhothai was formed. It is following the demise of this dynasty that Laos first gained its independence.
Kingdom of Lān Xāng
The first unified kingdom of Laos was created in 1353 by exiled Laotian prince Fa Ngum. During his childhood, Fa Ngum and his father fled from Luang Prabang to Angkor Wat, where he was raised and eventually married a Khmer princess. From 1350 to 1351, Fa Ngum began recruiting an army 10 000 strong to reassert his rightful heritage, and by 1353, he had regained control of his grandfather’s territory, founding a new Lao state, Lan Xang (“million elephants”) to which he appointed himself the king. Luang Prabang was considered the capital of this new Kingdom. The name Lan Xang was chosen to inspire fear in the lesser rulers, as elephants were used as the principal engines of war at the time.
Over the next decade, Fa Ngum began the conquest of neighboring territories until his kingdom covered most of present day Laos, parts of northwestern Vietnam as well as Northern Thailand. The consolidation of all the small Lao principalities meant that the new kingdom could hold its own against surrounding powers. Despite the large reach, Fa Ngum was unable to subdue the highlanders of the northeast regions however, and these groups remained independent of the Lan Xang rule.
Though all of the principalities were considered one unified kingdom, the management of the kingdom remained more regionalized. The king only ruled and influenced his direct town and surrounding area, leaving the lords of each muang to establish their own rules and taxes in each individual region. The lords were required to pay a tribute, attend court for important ceremonies, and support the king by supplying troops if a war was necessary. This somewhat loose structure meant that a strong king with personal and religious authority was critical to maintaining power and control.
During Fa Ngum’s reign, he was credited with introducing Thervada Buddhism to Laos, as well as for bringing the scared Phra Bang Buddha from Khmer to Luang Prabang, in front of which nobility were asked to pledge their allegiance.
In 1373, Fa Ngum was deposed as a result of court intrigue and his son, Unheuan, known as Samsenthai. He established himself as the new King reigning from 1373 to his death in 1416 and was responsible for establishing Luang Prabang as a major trading and religious centre, for solidifying the territorial integrity of the kingdom and for successfully repelling an invasion by the Burmese. Samsaenthai’s reign was followed by a series of weak kings, which gradually eroded Lan Xang’s position. In 1479, in face of increasingly powerful neighbours, Lan Xang was invaded by the Vietnamese and the city of Luang Prabang was sacked before the invaders were successfully repelled.
Lan Xang did not find its own again until the ascendancy of King Visunarat (reigned 1501-1520), who took two important steps to restore Laos. First, he ordered the history of Laos to be officially documented, in order to provide legitimacy to the dynasty. Second, a golden statue of Buddha, known as the Phra Bang was brought in from Angkor. This statue was established as a symbol of the right to rule Laos. King Visunarat was succeeded by King Photsiarath (reigned 1520-1548), who became known as one of the most devout kings in Lao history. King Photsiarath was responsible for cementing Thervada Buddism into Lao culture by banning spirit worship and by building temples on top of spiritual shrines. His reign abruptly ended following an elephant accident and his son ascended the throne in 1548.
King Setthathirath (reigned 1548-1571) was considered one of the great kings of Lan Xang for his role in successfully resisting a series of Burmese attacks in 1563 and in 1569. In 1563, in order to better defend against the Burmese, the capital of the Lan Xang was moved from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, a more central location. The Prabang was left in Luang Prabang to protect the city, but a new temple, Wat Phra Keo was built to house the new symbol of power, the Emerald Buddha. In 1571, during an attempted invasion of Cambodia, King Setthathirath was killed and his army was dispersed, leaving the Lao vulnerable to the Burmese invaders. The following years were highly turbulent, leading to intermittent periods of Burmese occupation, with other times when Lan Xang had no rulers at all.
It was not until 1633 during the reign of Sourignavongsa that the Kingdom of Lan Xang was reestablished. Considered the greatest king of Laos, King Sourignavongsa’s 57 year reign marked the golden Age of the country. Stability was restored; monasteries and monks multiplied; going to Laos was seen to be the monk’s equivalent of going to university. Literature and poetry also flourished. King Sourignavongsa was so revered and respected that his reputation reached as far as the Dutch representatives of the Dutch East India Company. It was under King Sourignavongsa’s reign that Europeans first visited Laos.
In 1694, King Suriynavongsa died without an heir as his only son was executed on adultery charges. The lack of a clear successor resulted in a bitter battle for the throne that culminated in the breakup of Lan Xang into three kingdoms – Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Champasak. The divided region once again became vulnerable to attacks from outside invaders. Additionally, Laos’ geographically isolate position meant that it could not trade directly with the Europeans and thus lacked access to superior weaponry and knowledge including European firearms advisors. Gradually, Laos fell under the control of Siam. In 1829, Lao essentially became a Siamese satellite state. Despite this development, the Lao frequently rebelled and fought fiercely to regain their independence.
In 1827, King Anouvong attempted to regain control by launching an uprising against the Siamese. The uprising was unsuccessful and resulted in the near destruction of Vientiane in 1827 and the confiscation of the Emerald Buddha, but it helped symbolize the people’s dedication towards national defense. The king was considered a hero, but Siam continued to control the region.
The French administration and the Land of the Lotus Eaters.
In 1893, the king of Siam ceded Laos and Cambodia to the French administration. This was a move designed to keep Thailand free of foreign domination. Between 1893 and 1907, additional treaties were signed ceding additional tracts of land, and thus the kingdom of Lan Xang became indirectly unified again. While the French had direct control over most of the country, the Kingdom of Luang Prabang remained independent, and was managed through the King Zakarine. Due to Laos’ geographical isolation and geographical terrain, the French did little to develop the country. The primary export was Opium, with some attempts at coffee and rubber cultivation. The kingdom became known as the land of the lotus-eaters as the few French who resided in Laos led somewhat indolent lifestyles. Very little infrastructure was created, few roads and no higher education facilities. Resistance against the French colonialism grew and a number of uprisings occurred between 1901 and 1906. Some revolts were quickly squelched, but others required pacification in the form of tax remissions.
In March of 1945, the French administration came to an end with the arrival of the Japanese. Originally stationed in Laos under an agreement with the French, the Japanese took control of Laos and in the process interned the French officials and troops. Japanese control was short-lived, however, and with Japan’s surrender in the Second World War, Laos once again attempted to assert its independence with the formation of Lao Issara, the Free Laos movement headed by Prince Phetsarath, Prince Souvanna Phouma and Prince Souphanaouvong. This movement was soon halted when the King Sisavangvong sided with the French, but it triggered the splintering of Lao Issara into another resistance group called the Pathet Lao (Lao State). In the next thirty years, the Pathet Lao, led by Prince Souphanouvong, operated from northeastern Laos, relying heavily on the support and guidance of the Vietminh communist party in Vietnam for its survival.
The Royal Lao Government
For his support of the French, King Sisavangvong was appointed the King of Laos in 1946. At this time, the French made more sincere efforts to modernize and autonomize the country. The Lao National Guard was established. A number of schools, hospitals and clinics were created. The country became recognized as an autonomous state within the French Union. Elections for a Constituent Assembly and then the National Assembly were held, and local Lao deputies were appointed. Over the next few years, in face of worsening relations in Vietnam, the French made further concessions and by February 1953, Laos was declared an independent institutional monarchy, though it remained economically dependent on France. This was no doubt triggered by the invasion and subsequent occupation by the Vietminh forces of large areas of Northern Laos.
In 1954, Lao was officially recognized internationally as fully independent country at the Geneva Conference, and soon after, France began their withdrawal from Laos. France’s departure prompted the involvement of the U.S., who, concerned with growing wave of communism in Asia, began to provide military equipment and training to the Royal Lao Government.
The 1954 Geneva accord acknowledged the legitimate position of the Pathet Lao and a temporary cease-fire was negotiated. In 1957, elections were held and a coalition government was formed of which the Pathet Lao secured some seats. As part of the truce, the Pathet Lao army was to be integrated into the Royal Lao Army. Despite this formal agreement, the U.S. continued to operate covertly, as did the Vietnamese government. By 1958, the fragile truce was broken as the Vietnamese Army invaded Laos. Open warfare resumed.
A cease-fire was negotiated again in 1961 following another Geneva conference where all parties agreed that Laos would remain neutral of foreign military intervention and a second attempt at a neutral independent government was established in the same year comprising the leftists (led by the Pathet Lao), the right (who were allied with Thailand and the US) and the neutrals. Again, the second cease-fire was brief as the war in Vietnam engulfed Laos. This period was known as the secret war.
The secret war
Though technically neutral, Laos was the theatre of a secret war waged between the North Vietnamese and the U.S. between the years of 1962 and 1975. Laos’ geographic position was considered strategic as the North Vietnamese relied on the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran across Laos for troops and supplies, which in turn made it of importance and interest to the U.S. as it sought to push back the North Vietnamese and cut off their supply lines. The US employed a number of strategies, including recruiting and training the Hmong tribes to fight and through bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail, the course of which - shockingly - made Laos the most bombed country per capita in the history of warfare. More than 2 million tones of ordnance dropped on Laos. To this date, it is estimated that about 500,000 tonnes of unexploded ordinance remains, contributing to over 120 deaths each year. The war continued until 1973, when the US finally pulled out as part of a peace and disengagement plan. Without the presence of western opposition, the Pathet Lao gained political dominance, and in April 1975, officially took over the government and management of Laos.
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR)
The new government worked to move the country towards socialism. This manifested in the form of two economic goals – the collectivism of agriculture, meaning that all land was declared state property and individual farms were merged into large scaled cooperatives and the nationalization of industry. These programs were not all well received by the Lao, leading to an exodus of around 10% of the country’s population to Thailand, France, the US and other countries. Additionally, the proximity of Laos to Thailand meant that the programs were sometimes difficult to enforce. Faced with growing resistance and the urging of foreign advisors, the government reversed its position on the management of the economy in 1981. The economy was further liberalized in 1986. Collectivism was abandoned; foreign investment was encouraged. The New Economic Mechanism (NEM) was established to decentralize the government economic enterprises.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, further steps were taken to open the Lao economy to the world. Private investments were encouraged and the country worked to improve relationships with other growing economies, such as Thailand, Japan and China. Laos also worked to improve relations with the US, and joined economic initiatives such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Today, these decisions have resulted in sustained growth for the economy and continuing trade and investment interests from foreign sources. While the Lao communist party retains firm political control, the management of the economy is left to free market forces.